Day 49: Belize to Guatemala by flying boat

Copy of Dublin to Galway by train (2)

After a month-and-a-half in Belize, it was time to move on. As much as I was enjoying Placencia, Belize only grants 30 day visas for visitors and mine was about to expire. Plus, I was eager to check out Guatemala.

On the morning of Day 49, we headed to the boat dock in Placencia, next to Barefoot Bar and purchased tickets ($10 BZ). The 10:00 “Hokey Pokey” Boat arrived on schedule and we all piled on. After a 15 minute boat ride on calm waters we arrived in Independence, Belize. A bunch of us then hopped in a mini-van cab and headed to the bus station. [Traveler tip: You don’t need to do this, the bus stops at the boat dock]

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The public bus arrived only slightly behind schedule, around 11:00 (scheduled for 10:45). The bus was packed and only a couple people got off. Yet, no one seemed all that concerned about fitting in this influx of 8-10 additional passengers. And their bags. Somehow we all fit. Of course, that required most of the new passengers to stand in the aisle, trying not to topple over into someone’s lap as the bus peeled around winding roads. It wasn’t the most comfortable experience. Then, 20 minutes into the ride/balance exercise, the ticket taker announced that there was a police check-point coming up and everyone needed to get in a seat. At the behest of the ticket taker, the two adults seated in the two-seater next to me begrudgingly slid over approximately one inch to accommodate me.

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When I was in 8th grade, my mom and I moved and I had to start taking the bus to school. One winter morning, I sat in an aisle seat in the front of the bus. The “cool kids” all sat at the back of the bus. My backpack was full of books that day, so bulky that it protruded out into the aisle. I don’t remember what I held in my lap but it prevented me from taking off my heavy back pack. I can still feel the weight of that backpack when I recall what happened next. The bus made a sharp right turn that I was not prepared for. Panic overtook me as I began tipping over into the aisle. Time slowed to a crawl as I tried in vain to subvert gravity. Slowly but surely I landed, like an overturned turtle, in the aisle in full view of the entire bus. For a 13 year old, “humiliated” is an understatement. I disliked school buses before then. For a while after that, riding on them filled me with dread.
That memory came rushing back as I perched on a tiny piece of pleather cushion, backpack in my lap, most of my body leaning into the aisle, my thighs burning with effort to keep me from flying forward as the bus lurched around curves. Thankfully, a seat opened after nearly 45 minutes where I spent the remainder of the two hour bus ride resting my aching lower half.

We arrived in Punta Gorda, Belize around 1:00 pm and purchased tickets for the ferry to Livingston through Memo’s Boat Service. [Traveler tip: Make sure you have enough cash  for the boat ticket ($25 US, I think) AND pricey exit fee ($39 US). Both fees can be paid at the immigration office].

IMG_7870IMG_7874The boat arrived around 3:00. No drug sniffing dogs this time. Once we were all boarded, one of the workers handed me and the girl sitting next to me a large tarp to place over us. I didn’t think it was really necessary, I’m not worried about my hair getting wet (advantage: Braids). But they were pretty insistent. Strangely, no one else was offered a tarp. (I’m going to assume it’s because both of us were black and he had been taking notes during Good Hair)

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As we set off towards Livingston it soon became clear why the tarp had been provided. It had stormed the day before and the sea was dark and rough. Large waves crashed against the boat, drenching us as we sped through the Amatique bay. The boat bounced wildly against the ocean, often going airborne before crashing down again. The looks on me and my fellow passengers faces went from bemused to slightly concerned to fear stricken

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During the hour long boat ride, there were several times in which I began wondering how my death would be reported in the newspaper. “Local hero flung from boat during 3 month heroic journey through Central America. Dies a hero”. Just guessing at headlines. But accurate guesses aside, it was a very scary ride. We were all relieved to hoist our soaking wet bodies onto the dock in Livingston.

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It was a day of very uncomfortable rides but we made it to Guatemala safe and mostly sound.

 

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81 Day Hotel Round-up

I’m back in the states now (!) and have A LOT of posting to do. So, without delay…

I’m a bit of an apartment nomad. I’ve lived in 10 homes in 4 (going on 5) cities in the last 6 years. In fact, 2011 was the first time I’ve ever renewed a lease. My proclivity for moving continued in Central America. On the plane I counted how many hotels I stayed in during the trip. Twenty-one. 21 hotels in 81 days. That may not seem like that many but keep in mind I stayed in a volunteer house in Belize for 31 of those days. I’m just always looking to make improvements: cities, apartments, jobs…hotel rooms. So, I may as well put all that hopping to good use and give a brief review of each of them.

In order of stay:

  • Cabanas My Tulum (Tulum, MX): 4/5 Affordable, clean, good-sized cabanas situated on a gorgeous stretch of beach in Tulum. Best hotel I found for the money on the beach.

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  • Pedro’s Inn (Ambergris Caye, BZ): 3.5/5 Fun hostel with cheap, very basic but clean rooms, 2 pools, a restaurant/bar with delicious pizza, and an owner with a fondness for Jagermeister. It’s a bit of a walk into town through a poorly lit area.
  • ImageYuma’s House (Caye Caulker, BZ): 4.5/5 Colorful, cozy, laid back hostel with affordable dorms, private rooms and an ocean view. Restaurants and bars nearby (keep in mind the island is only 5-6 miles long)
  • ImageWindschief (Hopkins, BZ) 4.5/5: Big oceanfront cabanas with refrigerator and coffee maker.  Great view from the balconies. Owners are friendly and helpful and the beachside bar has great food.

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  • Deb and Dave’s Last Resort (Placencia, BZ) 3/5: Cheap, pretty basic hostel (with some decorative touches) a couple minutes walk from the beach. Rooms get a little hot at night.

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  • Westwind (Placencia, BZ): 3/5 Beachfront hotel with small rooms. Tied up guard dogs can get a bit overprotective (growled/lunged at me a  couple times before realizing I was a guest- apparently one was in heat). Great view from the shaded hammocks out front. Free kayak usage for guests. You can find better for less in Placencia.

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  • Roach Motel (Placencia, BZ) 1/5: I can’t remember the name of this hotel but there was a giant cockroach (that I named Greg) and we left immediately the next day. Actually had decent amenities but EW.
  • Julia’s Cabanas (Placencia, BZ) 4/5: The beachfront cabana has a balcony and an AMAZING view. The cabana was beginning to show it’s age but was clean and comfortable. And oh man, that view.

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  • Casa Rosada (Livingston, GT): 4/5 There is a reason this hotel is one of the most recommended in Livingston. Affordable. well designed private rooms (with shared baths that could be nicer) and seriously beautiful grounds. The restaurant serves great food and management is eager to help with booking trips to your next destination.

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  • Utopia Eco Hotel (Semuc Champey, GT): 2.5/5. This place is new and still working out the kinks. Very limited vegetarian meal options each day, open air dorms that prevent late night socializing in the common area and limited staff. Also, lots of bugs in my cabin ( to be fair it is in the jungle). But, the views are fantastic, and I met so many great people there. It has a lot of potential.

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  • La Sin Ventura (Antigua, GT): 3.5/5 Nicely decorated, relatively affordable (but slightly pricey for Guatemala) hotel in a central location a block from the square. Very clean, comfortable rooms but no wi-fi on the 3rd floor. Friendly staff and great views from the roof.

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  • Posada de los Volcanoes (Panajachel, GT): 4/5 Very clean, thoughtfully designed hotel. Good sized rooms with cable tv and slight lake view from balcony (top floor only). The free breakfast is very tasty. Still, you can find MUCH cheaper hotels on the lake.

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  • Hotel Aaculax (San Marcos la Laguna, GT) 5/5 Absolutely gorgeous but relaxed hotel with lush, fragrant grounds. You can tell thought was put into every single detail. Even if you’re on a budget, it’s worth staying one night here. Treat yo self.

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  • Hotel Pinnochio (San Pedro la Laguna, GT): 3.5/5 Clean private room with lake view, hammock, “hot” shower and cable tv for 13 bucks? Not too shabby. Still, you can find better for cheaper in San Pedro.

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  • Casa Rolando (San Pedro la Laguna, GT): 2/5 Great lake view and that’s where the merits end. Rooms are fine but the manager is creepy and the bathrooms have a “window” (read: hole in wall) that opens out to the balcony for everyone to hear. Wi-fi was down the entire two days.

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  • Hotel Fe (San Pedro la Laguna, GT): 3.5/5 Shabby but cute rooms, free delicious breakfast, restaurant/bar across the street, cable tv (by request) and lake views. Owner can be a bit…surly but it’s a fun place to stay.

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  • Hotel Paraiso (San Pedro la Laguna, GT): 2/5 Big rooms, mine had no view, decent wi-fi signal. You can stay in much nicer places in San P.
  • Casa Lola (San Pedro la Laguna, GT): 4.5/5 Clean, attractive hotel with large rooms with cable tv, heated showers and reliable wi-fi. Views are great from the balcony. My favorite hotel in San Pedro.
  • Puerta Vieja (San Cristobal de las Casas, MX): 4.5/5 Very clean (and new) trendily designed hostel with really comfortable beds. Large patio with fire pit out back. Owner is fun and encourages socializing. Great central location.
  • Hostel 3B (Playa Del Carmen, MX): 4/5 After walking around in the sweltering heat with heavy bags for (what felt like) hours looking at a bunch of dingy hostels, this place was like a mirage. Very cute, very clean, trendy hostel with thoughtful decorating touches. Beds are comfortable and the area is quiet at night. No wifi on the second floor (or at least not in the 12 bed female dorm). No alcohol allowed.
  • Hotel Acuario (Playa Del Carmen, MX) 4.5/5 Great hotel for the price. Large rooms with A/C, cable tv, kitchen amenities including refrigerator, and balcony (or patio). Small but nice clean pool. Friendly owners. And there is a turtle pond! Hotel is a few blocks away from the hustle and bustle of touristy 5th ave.

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My travel survival guide: Conquering Montezuma

Let me preface this by saying that I am not a doctor. I have no medical qualifications whatsoever aside from my one-time ability to administer cough medicine to a screeching foster cat.

With that said, let’s talk about Montezuma’s revenge.

No? You’d rather not. Sorry this is happening.

Montezuma’s revenge, also known as Traveler’s Diarrhea, is not necessarily something that people want to talk about. For some reason, as a culture, discussing anything poop related makes many of us uncomfortable. This is especially true in regards to women.

I once dated a guy who was adamant about the fact that his ex girlfriend did not poop. She had told him this after all and he’d never seen her do it. I inquired if she was human or perhaps our first evidence of alien beings. I asked if she consumed food or subsisted solely on glitter and rainbows. Exasperated by my line of questioning, he ventered a guess. “Some girls just don’t…go”.

Our “relationship” ended shortly thereafter. I’d just had a big burrito, after all, and didn’t want to disappoint him.

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Let me just set the record straight. Barring any medical crisis or temporary blocking, we all poop. In fact whenever I’m feeling intimidated by someone, I remember this fact. It’s like picturing your audience naked-works wonders.

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s get back to Montezuma’s Revenge. According to Wikipedia, the trusted fact source of lazy bloggers, it is the most common ailment for travelers. Accordingly, an estimated 10 million people—20% to 50% of international travelers—develop it annually. That number actually sounds low. In my travels, I have not met one person who denied experiencing it. In fact, when traveling, rather than it being a taboo conversation, it can be an ice breaker. You talk about the country where you first got it, suggest remedies to the ailing person, laugh good-naturedly as they eye your meal with a mixture of sadness and repugnance.

I got it in Thailand. I’d been a vegetarian in the states but when I got to Thailand, within minutes I was eating balls of unidentified meat on sticks purchased from questionably hygienic street vendors with reckless abandon. It’s a wonder it only lasted a couple days.

I got it in Belize, too. But this time I had a secret weapon.

When preparing for the trip I remembered with zero fondness, the days of Montezuma that culminated in a filthy Bangkok train station bathroom in which toilets were slightly elevated holes on the ground.

Not wanting to relive that, I did some research on remedies. I read about all the old standards: pepto, immodium, cipro (which I had a preemptive Rx for, but the potential side effects never seemed worth it for me). Then I read about Oil of Oregano (OOO).

According to the article, OOO was anti-biotic, anti-fungal, anti-septic, anti-everything bad ever. The article was a bit questionable considering the URL was something along the lines of http://www.healthsupplements.realscience.buynow.com. Don’t click that. But the more I researched, visions of a dimly lit train station flashing in my mind, the more I became convinced that I needed to at least try it out.

The price tag was a bit less convincing: about 45 bucks for a bottle of gel caps at the health food store. But the employee helping me enthused about them so passionately and seemed so genuine that I decided to put the cash. By that I mean my mother paid for them.

When I got to Caye Caulker, Belize and that familiar rumbling and discomfort started, I popped a couple peptos, drank a lot of water and hoped for the best. But when it persisted, I finally popped an oil of oregano pill (along with a probiotic as recommended by the health food store guy). At that point I was still very skeptical.

But after an hour or so I felt completely better. My stomach was calm and undisturbed. I could eat without being within sprinting distance of a bathroom. I was amazed but did not rule out the possibility of a placebo effect.

But it happened again in San Ignacio: a day of food seeming to bypass my stomach completely. I popped a gel cap and within an hour Montezuma was gone.

In Placencia, I started to feel a cold come on. Almost as a joke, I took an OOO. It had been my miracle cure after all. The next day my symptoms had vanished. A fellow traveler, who had been experiencing the same early symptoms, was sick for days. (she declined the OOO-most people do. “Who is that creepy girl trying to push pizza pills?” I imagine them whispering)

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I did some more research and apparently it can be used for colds as well.

Now, I don’t want to sound like some kind of witch doctor (although I’ve read that they have their merit). OOO has worked wonders for me on this trip but that doesn’t mean it would work for you. Nor does it mean that it wasn’t just a coincidence that my ailments disappeared after taking some. That’s quite possible. But I know my body and I’m a believer.

Now we are in Guatemala and this morning Montezuma has returned with a vengeance (ok it’s really not that bad).

Little does she know, I’m ready for her.

Serious Person Disclaimer: I only take it if symptoms lasts more than a day and the water/pepto combo don’t work. Also, diarrhea can be life threatening so please call a doctor if it becomes severe.

Days 41-49: Placencia, BZ

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For the last few days I have been thinking about how to describe on paper our week in Placencia. It was such a magical time that I’ve struggled to find the words that will do it justice. So, I will take the easy way out and compare it to a movie.

If our week in Placencia was a movie, it would be Eat, Pray, Love. More accurately, Eat, Play, Love.

Several components came together to create this magnificent week.

1) Dorothy. I was so excited and happy to retrieve her from the airport. Dorothy and I are similar in many ways. We are optimists, we love to analyze people and experiences, we crave adventure and we believe in living life in such a way that it is an accumulation of good stories. These shared qualities make us great travel partners.
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2) Placencia. If I were to design a beach town it would look a lot like Placencia. It is a beautiful place. Grainy off-white sand and azure blue ocean stretches for miles. It doesn’t hold a candle to Tulum but it’s by far the nicest beach in Belize.
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Side note: Unfortunately that week, Placencia had a bit of a sea grass problem.
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It collected in large unattractive clumps on the sand. It also made swimming near the shore a bit…uncomfortable. I’d be merrily floating in the sea, wishing life could always be so perfect, when a blade of sea grass would brush my leg. Then another would cling to my arm. And suddenly I’d be splashing around in frantic circles trying to escape the swarm of sea grass surrounding me.

But Placencia is more than just the beach, although it is the underlying theme of everything. The village is small and very walkable.
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There are two popular bars: The Tipsy Tuna and Barefoot Bar both with affordable fare, friendly service and laid back atmosphere. I was partial to the Tipsy Tuna, which was beachfront, and we quickly became regulars.
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There are also other restaurants, hotels and shops along the main drag and dotting the sidewalk by the beach. It’s a beach town that fits anyone’s needs, from budget to high end.

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3) Locals: The friendliness of the locals rivaled Caye Caulker. Everyone seems to know everyone else and after a couple days there we were greeted by name (mostly by the men. At times the locals seemed to be composed entirely of men aged 18-35). And surprisingly, for the most part we didn’t experience the cat calling, lewd comments or general creepiness that I have encountered in other parts of Belize. It was a breath of fresh salty air.
On our first night out, at the Tipsy Tuna, we met some local tour guides. They became (respectfully) enamored with Dorothy and I and throughout the week took us on personalized kayak and snorkeling tours free of charge. It was low season after all so they had some time on their hands.

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Later in the week we met a Belizean Anerican ex-pat who owns a small restaurant on the beach. We all quickly bonded and we spent the remainder of our evenings hanging out at the restaurant with other locals, drinking rum and local wine, swinging on hammocks, cracking jokes, playing local card games and just reveling in the experience.

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One afternoon he and some friends invited us to go spear fishing. We kayaked out to some coral reef and watched them dive down with their spear guns over and over. Every so often when one would emerge, he would proudly hoist a new catch into the kayak.

(Pictures to come)

Hours later, our skin sun baked and salty, we heaved our kayaks back onto shore marveling wide-eyed about what an incredible day it had been. That night, sitting on the beach at our new friend’s restaurant, he presented us with a platter of succulent buttery fish, the day’s bounty, fresh off his grill. We ate ravenously, licking our fingers to ensure nothing went to waste. It was the best fish I’ve ever had.

Belly full and sipping on my third glasse of tree grape wine, I looked around. At the moonlit beach, at my new friends, at my old friend, and beamed with happiness. This cultivation of people and experiences is what brings me joy. It’s why I move every couple years and it’s why I love to travel.

Placencia was a vacation from a vacation. A literal washing off of the dirt and dust of San Ignacio as well as a metaphorical cleansing of some of the grime that had accumulated in my soul over the years.

We ate the best, freshest food
We played in the sea to our hearts content.
And we fell in love. With ourselves, with new friends and with a village called Placencia
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Days 39 to 41: Hopkins, BZ

After an interesting, unexpected journey from San Ignacio, we arrived in Hopkins around 2:00 pm and checked into our cabana at Windschief. The cabana was the perfect size for three people and situated right on the beach

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I’d only booked two nights in Hopkins based on my research. Posters on forums mentioned a dirty beach, sand fleas and general lack of things to do. Meanwhile others extolled the friendly locals and serenity of a beach undiscovered by throngs of tourists. All of these assertions turned out to be true, except for the sand fleas.

Hopkins is a small sleepy village. It reminded me of a less touristy, more rustic Caye Caulker. The beach isn’t as well maintained as popular beach destinations but there were only a few stretches that I would have described as dirty. The stretch in front of our cabana was lovely. There were other hotels and guesthouses that shared the coast but we basically had the whole beach to ourselves.

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The water was warm and deep blue. After a hot land locked month in San Ignacio, my heart overflowed with joy to be reunited with the sea. We practically cart wheeled into the water and remained there for a very long time.

“I can’t believe we’re really here!”
“I love our lives!”
“This is amazing!”
We exclaimed repeatedly.

And it was amazing. Hopkins isn’t the most gorgeous beach I’ve been to but that day it was exactly what I needed.

After an extended dip we trudged up the grainy sand to the beach bar for some lunch and refreshments. A few locals were perched at the bar who had clearly been there for many hours. We settled into some adirondacks and laughed at their drunken banter. Jill made friends with some sweet flea ridden pups from next door.

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We also met “Twatrick”, an older British man with a half shaved beard and half shaved head (“my good side”) who purportedly had been traveling for over 20 years, and was currently living in the woods subsisting solely on coconuts.

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Later we collapsed into our beds exhausted from the days journey. When we awoke around 9 we discovered that the town was dark and mostly shut down. We managed to find an open eatery , fumbled our way through a buttery but boney snapper and were in bed by 10:30.

The next day we spent an enthralling two hours zip lining through the jungle.
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That night we walked along the beach and noshed on some surprisingly delicious pizza at Driftwood Beach Bar.

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The morning that we departed from Hopkins I was awoken at exactly 5:00 by the loud crashing of the tide against the shoreline, the crowing of several roosters and a resounding chorus of insects and tropical birds in the trees surrounding our beach front cabana. It was a white noise machine come alive. As I lay in bed, the sounds crashing over me, my mind swelled with awe and gratitude. This was my life, and I wouldn’t change a thing.

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Hopkins, 5 AM

2 days in Hopkins Belize (1)

Day 39: San Ignacio to Hopkins

We woke up early on our last day in San Ignacio, wrote goodbye notes to Miss Martha, and headed to the bus station.
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The plan was to head to Belize city, meet my friend Dorothy at the bus station (she was flying in for a week) then take a series of buses to Hopkins in Southern Belize.

This was to be our first time taking a public bus in Belize and I was not all that excited about it. Public buses in Belize are old American school buses, and from what I’d heard, there is no such thing as “full”.

50 feet from the bus stop we watched a packed bus pull over, let off a few people, then continue on. The people who were denied from the bus slumped back to the waiting area. I struck up a conversation with a handsome young American named Aaron who was trying to get to Belize city to make an 11 AM flight. At this point it was almost 8 AM and Belize city is 2-3 hours by bus plus a cab ride to the airport. His timing was a bit off. I could see he was starting to get (rightfully) concerned and I wanted to ensure we made it to the bus station before Dorothy so we discussed alternatives. A cab to the airport is usually around 120 US which was out of my price range. But, I suggested he ask the cab driver across the street how much it would be. He returned with a smile and reported that the driver would only charge 75 US dollars to get us to the airport.

25 bucks for a private car to the airport? 25 bucks to not have to squeeze onto a rickety bus and hold on for dear life as it hurtles down windy roads? Sold.

We hopped into the cab and after a stop at the drivers’ house to give his granddaughter money for school, we were on our way. Our driver Austin was about 70 years old and such a sweet, endearing man. He talked on and on about his granddaughter and his life growing up in Belize. Many times he seemed a bit confused and we weren’t sure if he even knew how to get to the airport. Aaron remarked that he was “the Belizean Magoo”.

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Eventually, despite our doubts, we rolled up to the airport and dropped off Aaron. During the drive, Austin had very kindly offered to wait at the airport to pick up Dorothy then drop us off at the bus station. After some discussion about our destination, he then offered to just take us directly to Hopkins for 60 extra bucks. I immediately agreed.

Earlier in the month I had priced shuttles to Hopkins and it was 60 dollars per person. This guy was offering to wait an hour at the airport then take us straight to our hotel for 1/3rd of the price. And the best part is we wouldn’t have to spend 5-6 hours on a series of public buses.

The universe was looking on us extremely favorably that day.

So we picked up/surprised Dorothy, squealed with excitement for a few minutes, searched for Jill who is inexplicably always disappearing then headed to Hopkins.

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Austin informed us that the quickest route would be an unpaved road that he hadn’t driven on in 7 years. Oh. Okay. As we turned into the road in his sedan, large rocks immediately began pelting the bottom of the car. Thwack! Thud!

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We actually felt them ricocheting beneath our feet. This road wasnt fit for a humvee let alone a Hyundai Elantra. Dorothy and I looked at each other with a mixture of amusement and concern then casually began asking him about his tire maintenance routine.

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We were on that road for 38 miles during which time we saw exactly one other vehicle- a Mack truck.

38 miles, going 30 miles per hour, just waiting for a tire to blow out on one of the countless mini-boulders and for us to be stranded on the side of a dusty empty road in the sweltering Belizean sun with the Belizean Mr Magoo.

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Thankfully that never happened. Austin navigated that road like a boss and 2.5 hours later we arrived at our hotel in Hopkins, hours before we would have arrived by bus.

Traveling isn’t always glamorous, or easy. But on days like that when everything comes together like it was written in the stars – those are the days that make it all worthwhile.

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28 days in San Ignacio: Highs & Lows

Belize is the longest leg of our Central America travels and San Ignacio is the western town where we have been living and volunteering for the past 28 days.

San Ignacio is a very popular tourist destination in Belize and when I talked to fellow travelers and locals in the Cayes about it, it got mixed reviews.

From:
“Oh you’re going to San Ignacio? You’ll LOVE it”

To:
“You’re going there for a MONTH? You’re gonna be bored out of your mind”

After almost a month here I can say with assurance that my opinion is somewhere in the middle, skewing closer to either side depending on the day. Here are the highs and lows of my month in San Ignacio.

LOW: Weather
After 8 leisurely days on the breezy Cayes, stepping out of the shuttle in he dusty mainland town of San Ignacio was like walking into a wall of heat. I almost fell over.
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Some days are over 100 degrees late into the afternoon. The fans are on constantly in the house and one is always pointed toward me. But to be fair, it hasn’t been a constant heat wave. There have been a few blissfully mild, overcast, breezy days which I have cherished. I never thought I would refer to a 90 degrees day as “mild” but here we are. I knew to expect this, still, I’m ready for some ocean breezes.
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Caveat: I wrote this three days ago and, of course, the weather has been perfect ever since. Of course.

HIGH: Location.

There is a reason why San Ignacio is so popular. It’s the perfect location in Belize. It’s 15 minutes from the Guatemala border so it’s a great place to stop over before heading there or to take a day trip to Tikal. There are also ruins in the area that are reachable in less than 2 hours, many less than an hour. There’s ATM, Caracol, Xunantunich, Mountain Pine Ridge and others. There’s cave tubing, iguana petting, river canoeing and horseback riding. For an adventurous type, it’s fantastic.
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Caveat: some of these tours are a bit pricey (Tikal was $125, ATM was $85) so while there are a ton of things to do, it’s also a matter of being able to afford them.

LOW: Night life
Unlike the touristy island towns, especially San Pedro, San Ignacio nightlife is a bit lacking. Downtown is basically 3 blocks of scattered bars/restaurants. There isn’t much variety (especially if you’re coming from a city) and most close by 10. There is also a night club called Blue Angel but it’s the type of place I’d go on a triple dog dare. (In general it’s a good traveling practice to avoid nightclubs, especially as a woman).

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Although I was curious about their “Mother’s Day Dance”. Oh, Belize.

There is also the casino which is a cab ride or steep uphill walk from downtown. I went twice, won 5 dollars then lost 17. Those slot machines are addictive and I’m simply too cheap to go back again. There is a night club attached to the casino but there was a cover charge and I refuse to pay cover charges after the age of 22. There are also bars outside of downtown but i find the prospect of paying for cabs to and from home very demotivational. Most days, I am home by 10. For my wallet and liver, that’s probably a good thing.

HIGH: Food
As volunteers, we get free lunches every week day. All of the food is cooked by Miss Martha from scratch. The microwave doesn’t even work. Thus, even after 2 straight days of rice and beans (I’m off meat again) I heap enormous portions on my plate and scarf it down like a competitive eater.

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The food at the restaurants is also pretty good. I preferred the sea food entrees at the beach for obvious reasons. But there have been a few restaurants with stand out dishes and good service: Let’s go Eat, Erva’s and Serendib all get high marks. Jill has also raved about the grilled steaks at Maya Walk. If you can finagle an invitation to Miss Martha’s house, you will eat like a king.

LOW: Shopping

By shopping I don’t mean grocery shopping: those stores are everywhere. I mean clothes and accessories. I packed pretty light because I imagined I would be purchasing some cheap dresses like I did in Thailand. Travel tip: nope. There are a few clothing stores but the selections scream “19 year old at a European night club, circa 2002”. I was able to purchase new sunglasses but they were so flimsy they broke within 3 days. I learned my lesson after the second pair fell apart when I just looked at them. Last night, desperate for some variety, I fashioned a tube top out of the fabric I’d cut off my long dress. I will absolutely never wear this in public but it made my inner fashionista feel a little better.

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Do these shorts look familiar? They should. I’ve been wearing them for a month.

HIGH: Locals. Before I came here I was told by multiple people how “friendly” San Ignacio was. “Even friendlier than Caye Caulker” they said. While I wouldn’t characterize it as the friendliest place in the world (and certainly not friendlier than Caye Caulker where half the island knew my name by week’s end) most of the people I’ve met have been polite, warm and welcoming. I could do without the ubiquitous creepy cat calling men but that’s a worldwide issue.
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My favorite people in San Ignacio

HIGH: Volunteer experience (will discuss details in another post) which included free lunches, free laundry, free wi-fi and most importantly, free access to this God send of a pool.

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Gotta earn my keep

HIGH/LOW: Crime
Crime is an unfortunate reality of inhabiting this planet. And while I have never been the victim of anything beyond petty crime, I am always aware of the potential for it. It would be easy for me to think of San Ignacio as a dangerous place. I read all the warnings about Central America. And seemingly every couple days Miss Martha has a new story about a family member or friend of a friend who was the victim of a violent crime. At first, listening to these stories, I was very nervous to be out after dark. I imagined an attacker lurking behind every night post. Then I remembered that I have lived in Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York City. I didn’t sit home at night because of the possibility of being a victim in these cities. I took precautions. Central America is no different. I take a cab after 10, I keep money hidden, I never walk alone at night.
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Almost a month in and I’ve had no issues (high) but I continue to hear stories about crimes against locals (low). Let’s call this one a draw.

Overall rating: HIGH.

Over the past 4 weeks, through the highs and lows, San Ignacio has really come to feel like home. And while I’m ready to move on to the next adventure, the people I’ve met and the experiences I’ve had here, won’t soon be forgotten.
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Tomorrow we take a bus to Belize city to pick up a good friend of mine from Baltimore then head onward via 3 more buses to Southern Belize for a week. A la playa!

Incredible Belize: Snorkeling Hol Chan

Copy of Dublin to Galway by train (3)

Snorkeling is one of my favorite water activities. I love being able to swim without coming up for air, and witnessing the stunning aquarium residing beneath the surface.

Belize may not have the best beaches but the underwater attractions are among the best in the world. The barrier reef is 185 miles long, second in size to the Great Barrier Reef (according the Professor Google). The areas where we snorkeled especially have an abundance of underwater creatures and are thus very popular with tours groups.
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Photo credit: Ambergriscaye.com

On our third day in Caye Caulker I reserved a snorkeling trip.
Jill had planned to join me but decided to sit it out due to a nasty sun burn. (I am extraordinarily grateful that I’ve never experienced one – it sounds/looks awful)

So off I went alone. I’m actually glad that I did- I find I’m much more likely to strike up a conversation and make connections when I’m flying solo. It forces me to leave my comfort zone.

On the boat were two American couples, a mid-30s (and soon to be engaged**) couple from San Francisco and an older married couple from Virginia. It was such a small group and we instantly had rapport. The older couple were especially hilarious. They kept talking about how their son had forced them to book the trip. They later had be tied to the guide by their life vests because they struggled so much.

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En route to our first stop we small talked amiably until the sudden lurching and pounding of the boat made us grip our seats in silent terror. There were several times I almost went airborne. Thankfully we made it to the first stop without any casualties.

A fellow passenger named Denise and I had been discussing whether or not we wanted to wear life vests.
[I’d tried to snorkel without one in Thailand and found it overwhelming trying to stay afloat (as European toddlers, sans life jackets, were swimming around and beneath me like flounder). I soon opted for the life jacket which slowed me down significantly.]

Our tour guide/captain Rocky (“like the boat ride?” I asked. He didn’t laugh. With a name like mine I should know better) suggested we use the vests if we were having concerns. He showed us how to tie them around our waists so they didn’t slow us down much but kept us afloat. Win-win.

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Note: I had grand plans of photographing my last snorkeling adventure during my snorkeling trip(s) in Thailand. Unfortunately my underwater camera broke beforehand and I could not find a disposable underwater camera in any of the 17,000 shops I visited. It was still an amazing day but as you may have noticed I’m obsessed with capturing everything on film. I mean, Instagram or it didn’t happen amirite? This time around I was prepared with a Dicacam underwater camera case. At the last minute I decided to use my iphone instead of my digital camera for reasons I no longer recall.

So we anchored at the first stop: Hol Chan Marine Reserve, and hopped in. The wind was heavy that day and the sun was overcast so the water was a bit chilly. It took me a few minutes to get my bearings/stop choking on salt water (is it just me or do you always forget that ocean water is salty? And you just keep getting awful gulps of it then recoiling like this is new information? Nope just me? K).

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We began our tour around the area, spotting more and more colorful fish as we swam along. I would now like to present the Only Semi-clear Picture I Took of Fish

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Sigh. Should’ve stuck with the digital camera. Regardless, there were gorgeous fish of all colors and sizes surrounding us. They’re so used to people that they will get inches from you before flitting away. Aside from
fish we also saw a few sting rays and a large sea turtle. Being inches from a sea turtle who has probably been alive for many of my lifetimes, is an experience I’ll never forget. There was decades of wisdom behind those weary eyes.

The next stop on the the tour was Shark Ray Alley. It’s called this, I would guess, because there are a ton of sharks and rays there. The sharks are nurse sharks. They come because the guides feed them.

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The thing about fear is when you face it, it loses strength. So when nurse sharks are swarming your boat and your guide says jump in and you do it…by the time he is cradling one in his arms and encouraging you to pet it, it’s not all that scary.

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Nurse sharks are harmless anyway. There were also a bunch of sting rays gliding on the ocean floor. They actually made me more nervous than the sharks. Sting rays always make me think of Steve Irwin. More specifically, his death. I don’t know the gory details but I do know that the rays we encountered that day were peaceful and mostly kept their distance. They were also massive, with wing spans of 2-4 feet.

Our final stop was Coral Gardens to witness coral in a wide ranging spectrum of colors. We watched as schools of fish darted through the vibrant coral. We were the only group there which made the location feel even more magical.

I stayed in for about twenty minutes before I doggy paddled back to the boat and collapsed in my seat. After a long day of aqua aerobics I was thoroughly exhausted.

On our way back to dry land our guide steered us toward a family of dolphins and we marveled as they gracefully swam along, occasionally leaping into the air. Nothing excites a bunch of tourists like a dolphin sighting, I tell you.

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Snorkeling always makes me feel such a deep connection to nature. It’s easy to go about our high tech lives and not think about the environment and the ramifications of climate change, pollution, bottled water etc etc. But as I swam amongst these incredible beings, I felt a profound desire to protect then

Overall, I would recommend the snorkeling trip. Beauty is abundant in Belizean waters and I didn’t find it to be crowded despite there being other groups there. Plus you really just can’t beat coming face to face with a sea turtle.
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Photo credit: naturalwonders.com

*they mentioned that they would be diving the Blue Hole the next day and I detected a gleam in his eye that I couldn’t quite translate. I found out the next night that he proposed while they were diving and it’s all on video. So sweet.

One month in Belize: Reflections

Today marks one month living in the tiny country of Belize. I’ve been thinking a lot about how I’ve changed over the past month: the big ways and the small ways.

I’ve certainly changed physically:

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Check out that tan!

But other things have changed as well. Internal stuff.

Most predictably, my day-to-day behavior has changed:

Only drinking bottled water, never flushing toilet paper (delicate septic system here), slathering myself with sun screen before stepping foot outside, hanging clothes to dry, eating a LOT of rice, being in bed by midnight from heat induced exhaustion, immediately washing dishes to avoid ants, taking only cold showers, ordering rum instead of vodka.

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I’ve also changed in more meaningful ways.

For starters, I don’t care nearly as much about my appearance.

Society has a lot of conflicting messages about female beauty.

Have you gained weight?
Yikes, you’re SO skinny.
Wow…you got so dark
You’re basically translucent

These messages pelt at our self esteem, taking aim from magazines, television, advertisements, and sadly from other women.

After a skin darkening, hair frazzling, liberal eating month in Belize, I accept my soft belly and ebony complexion. I am not actively trying to lose weight or impress anyone. I don’t feel pressured to meet some unobtainable standard of beauty. Sure I still like to look good. But looking good now comes from feeling good. My shining eyes, my relaxed shoulders and my easy smile: those are what make me feel beautiful.
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And, the little things make me happy.

Sure, I was “happy” in the U.S. I had friends, income, a great apartment, healthy pets, a supportive family.

I was surrounded by bars and restaurants, had instant access to a variety of technology and social media, had disposable income and a thriving social life. Yet, I was also so bored.

Working the same job every day, going out in the same city, getting annoyed at the same guys. The monotony of it all was killing me. Now, I’m on this 81 day adventure and yes, some days are pretty mundane. But I appreciate and treasure every single moment. I smile from the bottom of my soul.

Because this trip isn’t going to last forever, I have to head back to an existence that probably won’t be quite as adventurous, at least until I graduate. So for now I’m reveling in the little things: the sun setting over the mountains, roosters running wild in the streets, practicing Spanish with Juan, rocking on a vinyl hammock, watching a pale green gecko crawl along the balcony, coconut rice and beans, laughing with Miss Martha, , submerging in a warm pool, teaching the kids to count to ten in Spanish, and the comforting breeze of the fan as I drift off into a nap in a beautiful foreign land that’s not so far from home.
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And finally, acceptance.

Let’s be honest, we can all be a little judgmental. I’m certainly guilty of it. Often we judge people before we even meet them. The wonderful thing about travel is that I get to meet people from all walks of life. People I might never give a chance in the states become confidants. Class disparities shrink. Age really does become nothing but a number.

One of my favorite people here is Miss Martha.

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She is a cook at the organization, in her 50s, and probably makes less per month than I did in a week. But none of that matters. We bond over penis jokes and talks about being strong, independent women. We laugh constantly. In the U.S, we would never even meet. Here, she is my dear friend.

Whenever I feel a judgmental thought creeping into my head, I try to push it away. I analyze what it is about me that makes me not want to interact with that person. We’re all human after all, just trying to share this shrinking planet. And the next person you shrug off, could’ve been the one bearing your most important life lesson.
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As the journey continues I look forward to whatever mind expansion and important lessons the universe has in store for me.

And a hot shower. One of those would be nice too.

Close encounters

Back home I have a cat named Sasha.

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She is, among other wonderful qualities, an excellent hunter. Some days I would wake up to find a dead spider cricket in the bathroom. Or watch from the sofa as she stalked and killed a house fly. Cats are a great way to avoid dealing with household insects.

I do not like household insects.

That brings me to today. I’ve been wearing the same pair of shorts for about a week now so I decided it was time to do laundry. Last time I needed some clothes washed, Jill threw them in with hers. The time before, I washed them in the sink despite there being a fully functioning washing machine downstairs.

Why do I seem to be avoiding the laundry room? Something so rare and useful to have when traveling?

Well, every time I go downstairs, which is about 2-3 times per week, there is a new carcass on the ground.

A carcass.

A very large carcass.

The first time I saw one, I laid a pair of keys next to it to show how large it was. It dwarfed the keys.

I knew they were down there. I knew that one day I would encounter a live one. This is Central America. They are all over the place.

Today I swallowed my fear and marched down to the laundry room, pile of dirty clothes squashed in my back pack. I flicked the light on, and waited. No movement.

Relieved, I turned on the machine, threw the clothes in and retreated back upstairs.

By the time I went to retrieve the clothes, it had gotten much darker outside. I hesitantly flicked on the switch and my eyes immediately darted to a creature running behind a bookshelf. I muffled a scream as it stopped and looked at me, sizing me up.

At first glance it was a mouse. A regular sized field mouse. No big deal.

At second, third and fourth glance it was a roach. A giant roach. A mouse sized cockroach. An equally large friend of his flitted across the room and joined him, sneering at me as I frantically clawed at my damp clothes and ran up the stairs.

I briefly considered booking a one way ticket back home and leaving these hybrid mouse-roaches behind forever.

I mean, I once broke a lease because I saw a much smaller roach in my trash can.

Then I remembered that I’m moving to New Orleans.

And in New Orleans, they fly.